GoPlayListen: Teotihuacan - A four-sided review

GoPlayListen: Teotihuacan - A four-sided review

Teotihuacan: City of Gods is a medium-heavy weight euro game from Daniele Tascini – half the design duo that brought us Tzolk’in and Marco Polo.

The game has nicely drawn Aztec style art, but this is most definitely a mechanics driven game with a pasted-on theme. It’ll take 1-4 players around 90-120 minutes to play once you know the ropes.

It has proven very popular, already hitting the Top 100 games on Board Game Geek (and being named in four categories for its annual awards for 2018); and winning the Dice Tower award for Best Strategy Game 2018. So what’s all the fuss about?

In the box you’ll find a large main board, six action boards (to place on main board spaces for ‘replayability’), 32 lovely wooden pyramid tiles, 100+ smaller cardboard tiles, another 100+ wooden pieces and 16 dice. So at around £35, it seems pretty good value for money. And the quality of pieces and iconography is generally fine throughout.

That said, while quite pretty, the main board is overly busy and not designed for purpose. In a game where players move dice around a board, there are no set areas for dice. It can be hard to place them without covering up something important – or spreading them out, making it harder to work out what’s where.

Teotihuacan pyramid.jpg

Teaching Teotihuacan

From one angle, Teotihuacan looks like a simple rondel-style euro game with short, snappy turns. The extra level of complexity comes from the fact you each have multiple workers at varying usefulness (they ‘level up’ as you use them); and the more workers (from different players) there are on a space, the more an action costs – or the more cocoa (needed to do actions) you can gather.

On most turns you’ll move a dice up to three spaces clockwise around the eight-space board to complete an action. Three spaces give a particular resource (wood, stone, gold). Three more match them to spend resources on an action to get stuff (building houses, or building/decorating the pyramid). Often, having some of your workers already there lets you beef up the action. Once you’ve done an action, you usually upgrade one (or two) worker dice.

The seventh action lets you learn a technology (get a bonus/discount when you use particular actions). The eighth lets you ‘lock’ a worker for an immediate and often strong bonus (several other areas also have lock spaces). Getting technologies can be great – if you remember you have them. Unfortunately you only mark this on the main board, so have no reminders in front of you that you’ve got them. Locked dice don’t count as being in the action space (for working out cocoa costs/gains). But also can’t be moved until you free them (see below) or another player locks into the same space (handily kicking you out for free).

When not moving to do an action, you’ll either be moving to claim cocoa or taking a turn to free up any locked workers (the latter is basically ‘miss a go’, as you can unlock those workers by paying some cocoa instead – a free action that doesn’t use up your turn).

As you may be starting to realise, cocoa is important. Whenever you use a space for its main action, you’ll pay one cocoa per colour of dice there. But instead you can move to a space and instead gain one cocoa per different coloured dice (plus one, so up to five). Even if you keep your cocoa spend down, you’ll still need it to ‘feed’ your worker dice three times during the game (during two mid-game scorings and the final scoring).

Anyway, back to main actions and upgrading dice. Higher value dice later give you more efficient use of particular actions (extra resources, points, or better actions). But these improved workers ‘ascend’ on becoming a six – being returned to being a lowly one after giving you a pretty meaty choice of bonuses.

After the euro game standard of 20-25 turns/actions, the player with the most points wins. Most points are scored in-game by spending those resources on building. But you’ll also be moving up three temple tracks (see: Tzolk’in) which can give you some chunky end game bonus points.

Teotihuacan temples.jpg

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: Much as with a Rosenberg euro, the Teotihuacan board game spends a lot of time giving shoutouts to previous Tascini title Tzolk’in (start tiles, god tracks, and the two-steps-forward-one-step-back action/gain resources/buy stuff/get improvements play). But for me Teotihuacan lacks the tension, the action blocking interaction and the originality/imagination of its predecessor. Everything works, but much feels laboured and players constantly forgot little details due to the fiddliness of the rules (a cocoa here, a victory point there etc). The busy board, lack of player boards and lack of player aids all contribute to this too.

  • The thinker: There are elements of luck that rub me the wrong way. With less than four players, dummy dice make up the numbers – placed on random spaces that only change (if at all) twice. This means certain strategies can become prohibitively expensive with no way to mitigate it. Also, some decorations and pyramid tiles give temple bonuses while others don’t. This should be a fun puzzley aspect of the game, but the lack of choice and control makes it frustrating. You can’t wait for the right tiles, as the good ones are universally good, So again, luck can screw you. Add random bonus tiles on several spaces, it becomes a medium-heavy game with a light game’s luck. For me this clever, thoughtful design needed sharpening to reach its full potential.

  • The trasher: Teotihuacan is a surprisingly tactical game. Rather than your plan, you’ll often go for cheap actions and big cocoa grabs as they appear. Planning can be futile, as the board state changes a surprising amount between turns. A player adding taking cocoa increases the chances the next player will do the same to cash in – and the next. So a space can go from cheap to expensive in a single round. I still didn’t enjoy the game much. This oft accidental player interaction is all there is. Otherwise, it’s just another resource conversion euro game.

  • The dabbler: You want me to watch a one-hour rules explanation? No thanks!

Teotihuacan solo bot.jpg

Teotihuacan solo play

The solo rules for the Teotihuacan board game involve setting the game us as for two players, then using a bot to play your opponent. The bot is simple to operate: an action is chosen from a small pyramid of six tiles controlled by two dice. Once taken, a seventh action replaces the one used in a pyramid and a randomiser shows which way the pyramid is reorganised. In this way all the actions will eventually be used, unless you have some really freaky dice rolling.

What the actions do is more complicated than I’d like. There are rules to follow for each: if the bot has W, do X; if it doesn’t, but it has Y, do Z; otherwise do A. But the system works well, and once you get used to how the actions trigger it quickly becomes second nature. So if you’re a fan of complex euro game solo modes, and like the sound of the game generally, I think you’ll have a lot of fun with this clever system.

Key observations

The Teotihuacan board game is currently rated in the Top 100 games on Board Game Geek (rating an average of 8 out of 10 from more than 5,000 players). It has won/been nominated for several awards. Only 10% of raters give it a 6 or less – with the same amount giving it a maximum 10 score. But still, it isn’t for everyone.

Naysayers claim the game is dry and repetitive, having little narrative arc. They also dislike the luck elements, find the actions fiddly and inelegant. And describe the game as ‘just another euro puzzle’. And finally, the lack of interaction and ability to plan make the game drag. I’d go along with all of these, sadly; so what are we not seeing?

Fans talk of many paths to victory and regular tough, deep, challenging decisions. A tight economy, much replayability (there are many ways to vary setup), and the quality of the solo bot version. But even these ’10’ reviews come with caveats. Best with four players (I presume due to the dummy dice); better after many plays (which games today can’t afford to need); a bit fiddly etc. That said, for most players looking for the heavy euro game experience, Teotihuacan is clearly hitting the right spots.

But be warned for early plays: certain paths can, at first glance, look like viable ones to victory – collecting masks, locking/unlocking multiple workers to go up the god tracks etc. But by the end of the first scoring round, you’ll realise ignoring certain other elements of the game is suicidal. Unfortunately, by then, you’re out of the game – and have an hour of play left. Some will view this as a challenge – they’ll nail it next time. Others will zone out, never wanting it to darken their doorstep again. You’ll just have to grade your own group. And perhaps point out that, despite all the choices, certain things need to be done to do well.

A final thing that made me giggle. One ’10’ rating fan says one of the challenges is “remembering where your tech applies, as well as the steps you have to take every turn”. One person’s ‘challenges’ are another’s production oversights, I guess.

Teotihuacan actions 8 6.jpg

Conclusion

Over five games I played the Teotihuacan board game with six different people (two of them twice each). While only one player hated it, no one loved it. We’d all play it again, bar that one guy. But when I offered it up for sale to any of them at a very good price, no one wanted to take me up on it.

I point this out because the game has done exceedingly well. And I didn’t want anyone to think I’d played this in isolation, or after my favourite pet had died, or with some miserable mid-level-game-hating depressives. As with every game, millage will vary – but for my main groups of euro game players, this one roundly fell flat. We do tend to like slightly lighter games. But Through the Ages, Terra Mystica and Tzolk’in are all popular choices for game days.

The game works, in terms of rules; but for us it was an uninspiring collection of existing mechanisms. It looks OK, feels OK, and is well priced. But was fiddly, kinda bland (except the cool pyramid) and too rules/exceptions heavy for what it was. For me, all the best/clever parts are taken from simpler games that use them better. So for me its a solid 6, but a pass. I’ll stick with Tzolk’in.

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